Great Power Tug-of-War: The Fate of Sri Lanka-US Relations

Great power competition is the underlying motivation amplifying the prominence of the Indo-Pacific region. Sri Lanka, positioned alongside the vital trade routes fueling Asia’s rise in the heart of the Indian Ocean, rests between three geopolitical juggernauts – China, India, and the US – all of which compete for regional influence. While perceptibly small in landmass and population, Sri Lanka commands strategic importance far exceeding its national weight, making it ground zero for the ongoing geopolitical struggle of 21st century Asia. 

The impetus for a robust American commitment to Sri Lanka is a consequence of Chinese shrewdness in exploiting South Asia. China’s audacious play for relevance in Sri Lanka, originating via its grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has won it considerable authority in the island nation. A slew of Chinese investment projects, combined with Sri Lanka’s precarious finances and its politicians’ imprudent coziness with Chinese money, won China control of the 1,500 acre Hambantota port in south Sri Lanka for 99 years. Further projects for highway construction and reclamation of artificial islands are in the pipeline. China has enveloped Sri Lanka in a web of unbearable capital investments striking at the core of the nation’s solvency. 

Experts warn that China is inching closer to its ultimate aim of utilizing Sri Lankan ports as military installations. Despite Colombo’s unfettered denial that this would ever come to bear, facts on the ground today insinuate stark violations of Sri Lankan sovereignty. China, always present to long-run preconditions for durable security arrangements, recently gifted Sri Lanka a decommissioned Chinese warship “in the latest sign [a] deepening military cooperation.” Not only does this move force unspoken military obligations upon Sri Lanka to the Chinese, even unspoken, it also fortifies interoperability between Chinese and Sri Lankan forces. Thus, should conflict ever transpire, Sri Lanka may be compelled to take China’s side in both rhetoric and arms. 

Moreover, China has intensively upped its engagement with the Sri Lankan scientific community. The Sri Lankan-Chinese research relationship, measured in terms of co-authored publications, has doubled since 2015 – nearly surpassing India’s research relationship with Sri Lanka. China is deploying its scientific researchers and universities to pull Sri Lanka closer into its national orbit. Exposure to Chinese culture and the country’s academic system, made possible by generous scholarships bestowed to bright intellectuals to attend Chinese universities, is drawing generations of young Sri Lankan scholars away from traditional research arrangements with the United States, India, and the United Kingdom. 

Amid China’s multifaceted, far-reaching ambitions in Sri Lanka, the United States must enhance its commitment vis-à-vis Sri Lanka while upholding the latter’s sovereignty – a vision made possible with tactful diplomatic, military, and economic outreach. 

American diplomacy in Sri Lanka is a fragile enterprise. Its reputation has been branded poorly by intermittent governments that have been hostile to the United States, and the broad consensus of the Sri Lankan people, as evidenced by Gallup’s annual U.S.-Global Leadership Report, is habitually negative on the topic of America’s world leadership. Even the slightest appearance of overreach or imprudence on the part of the United States can generate sizable blowback.

Secretary Pompeo’s recent travel through South Asia perfectly embodied the fervor of this backlash. His travel to Sri Lanka was axed due to widespread demonstrations against Sri Lanka’s proposed signing of a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with the United States, which outlines the rights and privileges U.S. defense personnel would possess if they were present in the country. Although this diplomatic event was handled with great poise with judicious avoidance, the US must continue to tread cautiously with respect to SoFA, among other issues.

The Sri Lankan public is emphatically apprehensive about any security agreement involving the United States. Therefore, America’s diplomatic corps has the high duty of assuaging the anxieties of the Sri Lankan people. U.S. Ambassador Alina B. Teplitz has already struck a constructive tenor to mitigate fallout: “What we would like to see is a very strong, capable, sovereign Sri Lanka, well able to defend its shores and control its waters.” Regardless, diplomatic niceties are incomplete without a persistent public relations campaign designed to instill national confidence in the agreement. 

SoFA represents a major stride in the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Sri Lanka. Accordingly, it’s crucial the end result be a positive one. Sri Lanka’s presidential election at the year’s end will be the defining factor for the future of US-Sri Lankan relations. The US should steer clear of injecting SoFA into Sri Lanka’s political discourse. Sidestepping this matter is the most sensible course of action because it deprives SoFA’s opposition of political ammunition ahead of the election. 

Additionally, the United States must strive to increase the number of military-to-military interactions between Sri Lanka and the US to better strengthen bilateral communication, trust, and readiness. Yet similar to the diplomatic constraints, military collaboration should be discreet and optimally unheard of, until after the election’s conclusion. The United States is a giant on the global stage, and one misstep, however seemingly small, can disrupt the trajectory for bilateral relations in the next four years. Sri Lanka is instinctively attentive to America’s footsteps in its backyard. The US should give no reason to repulse or alarm Sri Lanka by sacrificing its long-term geopolitical imperatives at the altar of short-term gratification. 

Nevertheless, the US must be steadfast in the larger strategic objective of unifying, in military and common cause, with Sri Lanka. This can be achieved with increased joint training exercises, alongside the US and regional partners, to project reliability to Sri Lanka. Resolute purpose and gradual integration are the preconditions to developing a confident, resilient military relationship, and stewardship to this end, which spans successive presidential administrations, is a foremost charge to policymakers today. 

Augmenting the economic dimension of the US-Sri Lankan relationship is a most salient matter for US government officials. Chinese preeminence in Sri Lanka, a masterfully orchestrated feat, was achieved largely through economic prerogatives alone. Infrastructure investment, public-private partnerships, and government-shepherded initiatives aimed at boosting bilateral trade were assertively pursued by China. Today, these programs, with dozens more to follow, have earned China incredible clout on the island. 

By studying this model, the United States can fully appreciate the degree of leverage economic connectivity can exert in the pursuit of national ambitions. The US should develop a like-minded strategy in Sri Lanka (and certainly not confined to Sri Lanka alone) that unites Sri Lankan needs with American industrial capacity, and vice versa. Further, the US can incentivize American-based companies to vie directly against Chinese companies at their own game. Competing against Chinese companies is a requisite of the present reality. Lest America be content with geopolitical inferiority, there exists no other alternative. Employing these economic tactics to strengthen America’s standing in Sri Lanka is central to counteract Chinese influence. 

For better or for worse, reality is forever fluid. America’s relative weakness in Sri Lanka, with respect to China, is not destiny – it is an opportunity for only those who find it as such. Foresight, practicality, and resiliency must be the hallmarks of US foreign policy in Sri Lanka, South Asia, and beyond to mold that opportunity into reality. When faced with great power competition, the United States can muster the resolve, purpose, and ingenuity – across all dimensions – to emerge ever greater.